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The Six Degrees of J.J. Abrams

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Plane crashes, covert agencies and impossible missions clutter the mind of one man, bubbling to the surface to satiate a global audience starved for serialized storytelling. He’s been called the next Steven Spielberg, a television auteur whose moniker has become a name brand coveted by viewers and executives alike. Millions have been gambled on the chance that his next project will reach the heights enjoyed by “Alias” and “Lost,” two good reasons for ABC’s phoenix-like ascent to its current perch atop the ratings throne.

As a television producer, writer, director, composer and actor, J.J. Abrams, 40, is a rare talent. As a child, Abrams would experiment with short films that he captured using a Super-8 camera. One of his first such efforts – a horror movie called “The Attic” – starred childhood friend Greg Grunberg, who now plays a lead role on NBC’s “Heroes” and has made cameos in each of Abrams’ shows.

“[J.J.] shot it, then scratched in the monster, frame by frame. It was a bolt-of-lightning creature. He compensated ahead of time for where the monster would be,” Grunberg said in an interview with USA Today. “We were, like, 11.”

Abrams hasn’t lost that youthful enthusiasm despite a career that spans two decades. He’s an executive producer on three different shows this season alone, all of which are on ABC – “Lost,” “What About Brian” and “Six Degrees.” And if that doesn’t seem taxing enough, those three shows are filmed in Hawaii, Los Angeles and New York, respectively. Juggling even two shows simultaneously would be a handful for anyone, but Abrams continues to balance the Herculean task of guiding these three shows with developing his burgeoning film career.

The latest installment of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, last May’s “Mission: Impossible III,” marked Abrams’ feature film directorial debut. Critics and the general public hailed “M:I III” as the best of the series, praising Abrams for his dual role as writer and director in redeeming Ethan Hunt from the bullet-repelling caricature he became after John Woo’s “M:I II.”

Executive producer and star Tom Cruise handpicked Abrams for the job after inhaling all 22 episodes of the first season of “Alias” – also a tense drama revolving around a secretive government agency – in just two days.

Cruise is just one of many a television viewer mesmerized by Abrams’ knack for serialized drama. Abrams has created or co-created three shows in his career to date – “Felicity,” “Alias” and “Lost.” And while “Lost” has revitalized serialized storytelling and spawned NBC’s “Heroes” and CBS’ “Jericho,” Abrams hasn’t forgotten a time when networks were “begging him” to avoid serializing the story in “Felicity” and “Alias.”

As for Abrams’ greatest success to date, “Lost” continues to be a commanding force in the ratings and one of the most hotly discussed shows on the air.

But for both “Lost” fanatics and Abrams himself, it’s been far too long since Abrams got his feet wet in the show’s writing process. Since co-writing the pilot with Damon Lindelof more than two years ago, Abrams finally returned to the fold this season. He reteamed with Lindelof to pen “A Tale of Two Cities,” the premiere to the show’s highly anticipated third season.

The next chapter in Abrams’ career will involve directing and producing “Star Trek XI,” slated to revive the Star Trek franchise in 2008, and possibly directing the season three finale of “Lost.”

Despite constantly having to swap his writer’s cap for his director and producer hats, Abrams remains much the same person he was in Sarah Lawrence College, the writer who would pen his own stories using Alvin Sargent’s Academy Award-winning screenplay to “Ordinary People” as a guide.

His Midas touch has crossed the line separating feature films from television, perhaps because Abrams recognizes the secret to his success better than anyone – it all starts and ends with the story.